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Friday, 15 March 2013

Performing Poetry To Older Children

When it comes to performing poetry, different age groups present different challenges. With younger children - Reception and KS1 -  it is generally very easy to get them laughing, enthused and having a good time. What is much, much harder is getting them to be quiet, settle down and listen to you, after having geed them up with exhortations to actively participate as an audience. On one or two occasions the children have become so wild during my performance that a teacher has had to step in. I need to work hard on encouraging fun and involvement whilst setting clear boundaries.

Older children - KS2 - present a very different challenge. I have found that children in Year 3 enjoy mostly the same types of things as children in KS1, but the same emphatically cannot be said, for example, of Years 5 and 6. I was alerted to this fact in an extremely uncomfortable way during one of my first ever school performances, where I attempted to perform my poem 'Come Yab With Me' (complete with audience participation and silly dancing) to a group of visibly disgusted Year 6 pupils. This, it turned out, was not a suitable piece for that age group, and I discovered this the hard way. The challenge, then, is this: engaging Years 3, 4, 5 and 6, all at the same time, during a KS2 performance. There is, after all, a very large difference in taste, sensibility and outlook between 7-year-olds and 11-year-olds.

Part of the challenge stems from the fact that older children often do not want to be seen enjoying something that a younger child is visibly enjoying. Another part of the challenge stems from the fact that I am fairly big on audience participation, which some of the more self-conscious (usually male) members of the older classes do not go in for. I'm afraid that, with me, at least some level of audience participation is pretty much non-negotiable, but I do try to temper this by performing poems on themes that some of the older children will be able to relate to, such as my own school experiences.

I think that I have a tendency, during a performance, to home in on any members of the audience perceived by me as not having a good time, and to let these few individuals cloud my judgment of the success of the performance as a whole. It may simply be that you can never please everyone, and that I am thus misconstruing the whole thing as a challenge, rather than simply as something that has to be accepted. Or it may be that I have to work very hard at engaging everyone. How might one do this? Well, I would rather some of the younger children not quite understand every word I say than that some of the older children feel patronised (patronising children is one of the worst things you can do during a performance, in my opinion). Given this, and with the aforementioned proviso about audience participation being non-negotiable in mind, I think it is safest to ensure that the older children are engaged; the younger ones will tend to look after themselves - I remember frequently not understanding some of the words to songs and poems when I was younger, and enjoying them none the less for this.

I just want to finish up by telling a quick story, in order to highlight some of what I have been trying to get at in this article. When I was in Year 6 we went on a week-long school trip. In the evenings we would usually play games or watch a movie. One evening we watched what we thought was a particularly rubbish movie. We spent the whole time sniggering and feeling incredulous that anyone could possibly think we would enjoy this garbage - a bit like the Year 6 children watching me do my Yab poem! I cannot remember the details of the movie (other than that it had some silly songs in it), and my friends and I were probably unusually precocious and cynical at that age anyway, but I passionately want to avoid this sort of thing ever happening again in one of my performances.

Having said all this: if only older children would realise that silliness can be fantastic and liberating! In this respect, I think, adults can be more childlike than children...

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